Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper tells the story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history with 160 confirmed kills.
“Tell me how this ends?” The rhetorical question General David Petraeus posed during the march on Baghdad in 2003 points to the challenge of defining realistic goals and securing them effectively. Without clear ends, even the most lavish means cannot succeed. Upheaval now unfolding in Iraq leaves in ruins the post-9/11 project of reconstructing the Middle East to drain the swamps that enabled terrorism to operate. The Iraq War divided opinion in the United States. A feverish tone echoing the Vietnam era entered public discourse. The increased sound and fury of policy debates signified very little for real issues at stake.
Recent events make the larger question of how the United States can secure a sustainable peace on acceptable terms a pressing concern. In To Make and Keep Peace Among Ourselves and with All Nations author Angelo M. Codevilla argues that peace must be “the practical lodestar by which the American people and statesmen may navigate domestic as well as international affairs.” War should be no more than a temporary struggle to secure vital concrete, interests. Prolonged engagement in a liminal situation of conflict that neither reached the level of war nor brings peace has a deeply corrosive effect on America.
Codevilla blends a philosophical inquiry into the nature of peace with an acerbic jeremiad against the persistent mismanagement of American foreign policy. Readers may differ with his critique, but exploring the nature of peace and how it affects policy helps frame vital questions about ends and means. What does action gain? And at what cost? As Machiavelli noted in his Florentine Histories, starting a war is much easier than concluding it on favorable terms. Better an imperfect peace, than a war that cannot be ended by a better one.
Peace implies neither pacifism nor passivity. The flourishing of civilized life and the capacity to enjoy the wealth and other benefits it offers shows the practical meaning of peace. Moderating quarrels and avoiding conflict where possible made civilization flourish in Ancient Greece. Even militarized Sparta used war as the means to secure peace rather than an unlimited endeavor that might hazard the city’s future. While far from natural to mankind, peace suits its natural inclinations best and offers the most conducive path to prosperity.
The Peloponnesian wars among the Greeks, however, showed how the passions war arouses could drive a conflict beyond the participants’ intentions or interests. Steps taken without heed to their consequences sparked conflict. Fear, ambition, and partisan interests among leaders impeded a negotiated end. Athens and Sparta both conceded defeat when events turned against them, but pride kept their opponent from accepting terms. Much the same dynamic, Codevilla argues, occurred during the First World War. Only when the struggle burned out with both sides exhausted did the violence fade. Ancient Greeks and Modern Europeans alike thoughtlessly made war an end rather than the means to secure an acceptable peace. Devastation that shattered civilizations became the price of their folly.
Wealth and glory won by conquest might challenge the case for peace, but empire brings strain and instability while undermining liberty. War might be justified in defense or to redress injury, but not for a ruler’s ambitions or greed. Christian theology saw peace as the most desirable circumstance. It judged statesmen by how they served the people’s interests by guarding peace. Even if rulers and prelates failed to meet the test, just war theory established an important principle.
Religious strife driven by the Protestant Reformation and amplified by parallel conflicts over authority between rulers and elites broke the peace of Early Modern Europe. Those cycles of war set the context for Thomas Hobbes famous account of man’s natural state as “nasty, brutish, and short” amidst a continual struggle of all against all. Security meant surrendering natural liberty for a protection offering something akin to what Codevilla understands as peace. The vanity and ambition of rulers, however, could overwhelm self-restraint and fuel aggression no less than the passions of their subjects had. Conquest, and the wealth and prestige it offered, beckoned.
British commentators, including Tory writers like Viscount Bolingbroke, accepted the need to check Louis XIV’s bid to dominate Europe, but questioned the gain in pursuing the war beyond that point. Contrasting raison d’etat with patriotism, Bolingbroke argued that a patriot king sets the country’s interests above his own ambitions. Since peace served the national interest under normal circumstances, pursuing it became the mark of patriotism. Along with Christian teaching on just war and pragmatic calculations of self-interest, a new understanding of public virtue made a case for peace. Eighteenth century Tories, many of whom questioned the legitimacy of the first two Hanoverian kings, also developed a conception of the national interest as something apart from the state (i.e. ruler, dynasty, and governing institutions) that became an important principle for international politics.
An intellectual legacy from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment guided American thinking on peace and how to secure it. The generation that won independence realized the United States would have to defend the peace it sought. Besides deterring aggression and responding to insult, that meant avoiding involvement with other nations’ quarrels or giving offense that might bring retaliation. George Washington realized that internal peace required neutrality in foreign conflicts. A fine line separated foreign and domestic politics during the early republic as outside powers sought to play states and political factions against each other for their own advantage. Independence claimed for the United States a place among the nations that vigilance, strength, and unity alone could secure.
While recognizing the imperative expressed in the proverb that if you want peace, prepare for war, Washington sought to avoid conflict by observing good faith and justice towards all nations while having as little political connection with them as possible. Colonial era wars had shown how easily America could be drawn into European conflicts so keeping out of European rivalries diminished the prospect of war. John Quincy Adams refined the approach into a paradigm for American geopolitics that Codevilla distills into three points: asserting American identity and principles in ways that respect those of others; keep troublesome forces at a distance; and prioritize closer interests over more distant ones.
Vulnerability made American leaders conscious of the dangers to peace and the imperative of balancing ends with means to secure it. They lacked room for error during the years from securing independence through the War of 1812. The United States thereafter benefitted from the long European peace after Waterloo that kept great power struggles at bay until 1914. Codevilla argues that principles William Seward and James Blaine carried over from Adams and Grover Cleveland adopted from Washington kept that balance alive into the late nineteenth century as the United States managed a transition from growing wealth to power.
Here the critique begins as Codevilla traces how groups that came to dominate twentieth century elites lost their grasp of principled restraint, the proper role of hard power, and ultimate purpose war serves in securing peace. Pointing out that no country “can afford to regard itself as a sort of missionary power charged with the rectification of wrongs,” former Secretary of State Richard Olney wrote in 1900 that if the United States took such a line “it would not merely be laughed at but voted a nuisance by all other nations—and treated accordingly.” Yet that moralizing approach became a recurring pattern as American foreign policy increasingly pursued aims Walter McDougall aptly likens to a crusader state.
Moralizing obscures the essential balance of costs against benefits while avoiding the question of what kind of peace might be acceptable. Effective pursuit of national interests falls by the wayside. Codevilla warns that the imperial project of managing peoples instead of defeating enemies brings only a protracted struggle that neither wages effective war nor secures peace. All too often, as during Vietnam and more recently with Iraq, those distant wars return home to poison domestic politics. Cycles of idealist zeal followed by disillusion have run through American foreign policy at varying amplitudes since the late nineteenth century experiment with imperialism after the Spanish American War.
A more enduring divide from the late nineteenth century debate over empire separated those like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge who calibrated their view of American interests with the means of pursuing them from others heedless of the need for power to back policy. Codevilla sharply contrasts pacifism with peace to show how neglecting the means of deterrence while playing up treaties and international law raises the prospect of war. Feckless moralizing antagonized or emboldened adversaries and left the United States unprepared to back diplomacy by force. Administrations from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt reduced American capabilities and sometimes increased their rhetoric. The consequent gap endangered peace
Replacing the compass of concrete peace with a utopian creed distorted American policy during World War II and the Cold War that followed. Generalizations overrode the specific questions of national interest and how they determined the terms of peace the United States sought. Without answering them, officials and commanders lacked the clarity to earn peace. The horror of war in the nuclear age then prompted the notion of a stark choice between war and negotiation that overlooked what kind of deal might be negotiated. The process of managing national security displaced the goal of establishing peace and protecting the American way of life.
The result drew the United States into commitments beyond those necessary to secure peace or pursue commerce with other countries. Guiding and managing foreign societies through calibrated military action blurred the lines between war and peace as conflict became the new normal. This project forced officials to choose between imposing American ways or adapting their policy to fit those of other societies thereby blending provocation with concession. Picking sides in quarrels within foreign cultures made commitments Americans would not support under strain while stirring resentments that ended with terror attacks. The shock of 9/11 purportedly justified a commitment to homeland security that eroded civil liberties and forced exactly the changes in how Americans live that a focus on securing peace would avoid. It also brought new efforts at nation-building that made the original problem worse. American citizens became more alienated than ever from what Codevilla describes as a ruling class more eager to whip them into line than protect their interests. Public discourse became increasingly embittered behind a threadbare façade of unity.
What guidance does Codevilla’s account offer to resolving present discontents? He insists that “the search for peace begins with neutrality in others’ affairs and that when others trouble our peace we impose it upon them by war—as terribly decisive as we can make it.” The phrase might seem to combine isolationism with unbridled aggression, but actually involves neither. Alliances based on shared interests can hedge risk and provide a valuable force multiplier to deter threats. Instead of managing security problems, place the burden of peace within nations on the authorities which govern them. Rulers have a greater stake in the outcome than foreigners along with greater leverage to secure it. Those who deflect tensions abroad or provide haven for terrorists draw retribution upon themselves. Otherwise, they become partners in securing a global peace that benefits all.
Such an approach rules out pressuring other societies to change in ways their rulers or people will not accept. It also demands prudence in responding to outrages, even ones as horrific as 9/11, so that righteous anger does not drive the United States into doing what the terrorists want. Olney’s warning bears repeating as policies that make countries a nuisance create antagonism where cooperation might be had. Ineffective action that makes regions less stable generates resentments that undermine the stability a nation aims to secure. Having a sense of how a line of policy is to end that balances realistic objectives with the means of securing them avoids the pitfalls now seen in Iraq and the wider Middle East.
Codevilla’s discussion underlines the importance of recognizing limits. Along with the limits to what military force and outside intervention can accomplish, there are bounds to what the American public will support. The attempt to press beyond those strictures ends badly. Working creatively within them to deter threats, contain lawless aggression, and where possible place the burden of keeping America’s peace on other countries offers a better approach that follows a path charted by experience.